Courtesy of Universal Studios
“Savages” is a movie from the Oliver Stone who directed “Natural Born Killers” rather than the one who directed “W.” This speaks to both its quality and its content. It’s brutal, murky and occasionally funny. If you can stomach the grit, it’s a mighty fine crime flick.
The story mostly takes place in the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is Laguna Beach. California girl O (Blake Lively, “The Town”) is in a polyamorous relationship with the two best bud growers on the West Coast, ex-SEAL Chon (Taylor Kitsch, “Battleship”) and Buddhist botanist Ben (Aaron Johnson, “Kick-Ass”). When Ben and Chon refuse a business offer from a Mexican drug cartel headed by aging femme fatale Elena La Reina (Salma Hayek, “Frida”), the cartel queen sends her fixer Lado (Benicio del Toro, “Che”) to kidnap O. With help from their corrupt DEA contact Dennis (John Travolta, “The Taking of Pelham 123”), Ben and Chon strike back at the cartel to rescue O.
The characters are all varying degrees of despicable. Lado is the most ostentatiously barbaric, but protagonists Ben and Chon do their share of reprehensible things as well. What makes them so enjoyable to watch is that they all have good sides too, so it feels like you’re watching human beings rather than actors playing archetypes. They do what they feel they have to, and everyone has someone they’re trying to protect.
Connecting all of the characters is a web of lies and under-the-table deals. The relationships become convoluted, but in a good way. Sorting through them produces the same feeling as untangling a jumble of cables. There’s a good bit of moral ambiguity as you wonder if the character you despised 20 minutes ago is actually doing the “right thing.” In the latter half of the movie, the previously taut story starts to meander and laze around, but there is always a momentum to keep you interested in what will happen next.
Visually, the movie is like a sugar skull. Sometimes the base layers are washed out, but there’s almost always some saturated color that makes things pop. Occasionally a crazy filter will get thrown on a shot to mix things up, which can either help a shot or distract you. The visual style of “Savages,” while not entirely unique, is at least easy on the eyes.
The soundtrack is excellent, with some good original compositions mixed in with covers of “Psycho Killer” and “Here Comes the Sun.” Some say that you know a great soundtrack when it goes so well with the film you don’t even notice it, and while that mostly applies here there are a few moments where the music makes itself heard, always to the scene’s benefit.
While this is not Stone’s best work by any means, it is a welcome return to a subject he’s good at handling. “Savages” will make you laugh and cringe and pump your fist, and you’ll leave the theater with a feeling of satisfaction.